December 3, 2012

Service families find comfort in togetherness

An event in Waterville reaches out to those whose loved ones are serving with a Guard unit.

By BEN McCANNA Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE - While U.S. service members continue to put their lives at risk in Afghanistan, the daily hardships of their spouses and children are often overlooked.

click image to enlarge

Colby Peacock of Yarmouth gets a present from Santa while holding a large photo he brought of his father, 1st Sgt. Michael Peacock, during a Christmas party for families of soldiers in Unit 488 serving in Afghanistan, in Waterville on Sunday.

Photos by David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

Cheyenne Allen, 3, of Strong, wearing a button with a photo of her father, Sgt. Sheldon Allen, reacts as Santa enters the Armory in Waterville on Sunday. With her are mother Emma and brother Elias.

"It is definitely tough for them," Capt. Frederick Bondole said. "It's just as much a sacrifice as the soldiers are making."

Those sacrifices were acknowledged Sunday during a Christmas party at the Waterville Armory. The event -- a joint effort by the Army National Guard's Family Readiness Program and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1285 -- was held for the families of the Guard's 488th Military Police Company. About 350 guests ate pot roast and fixings, while holiday songs -- including the mood-setting "Blue Christmas" -- played in the background.

The party also featured an appearance by Santa Claus, who handed out $1,000 worth of presents to 75 children -- many of whom will celebrate Christmas with just one parent this year.

In September, 120 soldiers from the 170-soldier unit were deployed to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan for a 365-day tour. Bondole, who serves as the unit's rear detachment commander, said the soldiers' families will experience stress and worry during the next nine months.

In some cases, parents of small children have been immersed in the role of lone caretaker while their spouses are away, he said. In addition to the added stress of double parenting, they also worry about their spouse's safety.

The deployment can feel even worse for children, said Bondole, 37. While military spouses understood what they were getting into when they married soldiers, their children sometimes struggle with the situation.

"It's something they didn't choose to be part of," he said.

During deployment, soldiers' children will lose the opportunity to share a full year of milestones, including school plays, sports events and Christmas.

"It's something that we don't think about," Bondole said. "I think the children need to be recognized for that."

Amanda Peacock, 30, of Yarmouth is a military wife and a parent of two children under age 11. Peacock's husband, 1st Sgt. Michael Peacock, is in Afghanistan for his third tour in nine years.

Peacock is also group leader for the unit's Family Readiness Program. The program hosts events and monthly meetings that provide a social outlet for families in similar circumstances, she said. The program can also help families find assistance with child care, heating oil and more.

The 488th is based in Waterville, but its members are spread throughout the state -- from Caribou to Sanford -- and the decentralization poses challenges that other branches of military don't experience.

"We don't have the resources of a base like active-duty families, so we have to work together to find those resources," she said.

The effort pays off for many people, Peacock said. For example, the monthly meetings allowed her daughter, 11-year-old Mackenzie, to befriend two children whose fathers were also deployed to Bagram in September.

Mackenzie brought a special guest to the Christmas party, a life-sized photo of her father. The photo, which is mounted on cardboard, is known as a Flat Daddy.

Peacock, who prefers the term flat soldier, said the photos are meant to accompany families to special events and serve as stand-ins for the real thing.

"It helps the kids stay connected," she said.

Mackenzie said she worries about her father, so she tries to stay busy. It's only during idle time when worrisome thoughts creep into her head. Overall, however, she feels she is coping well in his absence.

"It's his third tour, so it's gotten easier for me," she said.

Emma Allen, 25, of Strong, is a military wife and mother of two. Her husband, Sgt. Sheldon Allen, 25, is in Bagram for his second deployment; however, this tour is more difficult, she said.

"We didn't have the kids the first time around -- it was just me and him -- so this one's a little different," she said.

Her children -- ages 1 and 3 -- are having a tough time adjusting, she said.

"It's getting worse. The amount of time he has been gone is setting in for them, and they don't really understand how long he's going to be gone," she said.

During the party, Allen's 3-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, wore a button with a photo of her father, whom she said she misses.

"He'll be here when I'm 4," she said.

When a reporter asked Cheyenne what she would like to say to her dad at Christmastime, she replied with two simple words.

"Thank you."

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

bmccanna@centralmaine.com

 

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